a family of bears perched over a waterfall in Alaska

Shooting in Manual + Auto ISO Has Changed my Photography

It’s not often that a technological revelation changes so much when it comes to photography. However, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised, as the digital photography revolution has been a game changer in so many ways, and every few years something new comes out that significantly improves my photography.

Using full manual mode plus auto ISO is another one of these moments.  It’s changed my photography for the better and I’ll probably never go back to using aperture priority, program, or any other modes…ever.

a cute bornean sun bear enjoys the afternoon high in a tree

Why such a game changer?

Basically, what this allows you to do is set your exact aperture, your exact shutter speed, and the camera chooses the ISO for you to result in an “even” exposure.

Thus, you have complete control over the two most important aspects of the golden trifecta (golden trifecta being aperture, shutter speed and ISO). For every photo I know what aperture I want, because I know whether I want everything in focus or only my subject in focus.  And for every photo I have a pretty good idea of the shutter speed I need in order to freeze motion in the shot (or the opposite—to blur motion in the shot, although this is less common).

ISO is really just a means to an end.  I always want the lowest ISO possible. One of the most profound moments was when I realized that the camera, through it’s mini super computer, was calculating the precise, perfect ISO, and it was often less than I would have thought.  See, I used to dial in higher-than-necessary ISOs just to be safe.  But what this new method has taught me is that you can actually get lower ISOs than guess-work by letting the camera help you a little.

In addition, I love this mode because you can still use exposure compensation.  That is, you can increase or decrease your exposure via the little +/- dial, which allows me to quickly and effortlessly adjust how light or dark the photo is.  On full manual without auto ISO, you’d have to change one of the three settings (aperture, shutter, ISO) to let in more or less light.  Using manual plus auto ISO is quicker and more accurate when it comes to the ease-of-use with the camera’s exposure compensation.

a female orangutan feeds on fruit in Kuching, Borneo

Are there any downsides?

Frankly, none that I can think of.  The only one I could kinda remark on is that the way your camera chooses its exposure can be flawed.  That is, if you are relying on your camera to be perfect at an “even” exposure (when the exposure is set at zero, which is usually is), you may be shooting too light or dark given the scene before you.  However, this is SO easily corrected via exposure compensation I really can’t say this is a downside.

The other slight downside is if you go photographing willy nilly without monitoring your ISO. The risk here is that if you are photographing in challenging lighting conditions (i.e., very dark), your camera might give you an extraordinarily high ISO that is just unacceptable.  And if you aren’t monitoring what the camera is giving you, you might spend the entire outing shooting at a super high ISO only to find that your photos are noisy, grainy, and botched, once you put them on the computer.

There are a couple workarounds on this. 

First, you can simply monitor your ISO and make sure you’re shooting in your “acceptable” range (usually between 100-3200).

The other option is in most cameras you can set an upper threshold for your ISO.  This way, the camera will not go above the number you set no matter what.  I find this to be a little limiting, as there are indeed times I may want to shoot at ISO 6400 when I am desperate (dawn, dusk, caves, indoors, etc.).  Thus, I don’t want to have to go deep in my camera menu at a moment’s notice to up the threshold just for a few shots.  I prefer to just keep a watchful eye on my ISO.

Part of the reason this is such a breakthrough is that cameras didn’t actually have this capability a few years ago.  I couldn’t be happier now that this is possible and I can tell you it’s my go-to shooting mode 99% of the time.

Hope you find it to be equally rewarding!


Court Whelan Signature